Power guide to weighted squats!

A squat is one of the most well-known and common bodyweight exercises. It is used to build endurance and muscle tone, mainly in the upper legs and glutes. But throw some serious weight onto the bar and you now have an exercise that works the whole body!

This detailed article is the ultimate guide for beginners, regular gym goers and even personal trainers and coaches. It walks you through what a weighted back squat is, what equipment you need, what muscles it helps develop, proper technique, a guide to the weight to use, tips for success, variations and a description about what could go wrong and how to minimise the chance of injury.

What are you waiting for. Here it is …

The low down

A squat is one of the most well-known and common bodyweight exercises. It is used to build endurance and muscle tone, mainly in the upper legs and glutes. But throw some serious weight onto the bar and you now have an exercise that works the whole body!

Basically, a weighted back squat involves placing a weighted barbell across your shoulders and bending the knees from a standing position, squatting down and then standing up again.

Other names

Weighted squats aren’t really called anything else. And when you are working with heavy weight, you really don’t want to be mucking about with any fancy variations such as those that are possible when doing bodyweight squats.

You might however, hear the terms “low bar’ and ‘high bar’ squat. This is a reference to the position of the bar across your shoulders, described in a little more detail below.

You may also hear the term “front squat’. While definitely a part of the squat family, a front squat is different from a back squat.

What does this one do?

While the squat movement is classified as a leg exercise, to successfully and safely lift heavy weight you absolutely must keep your entire structure strong by engaging your core abdominal muscles as well as your chest, shoulder, arm and back muscles. Check out the technique description below to learn more.

The weighted back squat will really work your calfs, quadriceps (also called ‘quads’), hamstrings) and your gluteus Maximus (also called your ‘glutes’ or ‘butt muscles) and will give you legs of steal!

Equipment

Weighted back squats really only require a barbell and some weights. However, if you are going to go real heavy, you will also need the safety of a squat cage with safety rails. A squat cage is a structure that enables you to rack the bar at the correct height (being a couple of inches below your shoulder height). This allows you to more easily load the bar with the required weight, but more importantly, also allows you to get under the bar, position it correctly across your shoulders before lifting into a standing position.

The safety rails are there if you fail. Dropping the bar backwards, or falling forward in the bottom part of your movement will result in the bar being caught by the rails, and not crushing your neck. Rather essential right?

Wrist straps can also be useful. They help stabilise the wrists when lifting very heavy weight.

There are also specific weight lifting shoes that are reenforced in the appropriate places and have a raised heel – all designed to give you a stable platform to lift from.

How do I do the standard version of this exercise?

For a ‘high bar’ squat the bar is resting across the top of your shoulders on the top of your traps.

For a ‘low bar’ squat, the bar is, like the name suggests, resting lower down – basically resting on your rear delts.

Other than the placement of the bar, the rest of the technique is pretty well identical, though keeping the chest up takes a bit more focus in the low bar position. The trade-off is that you should be able to lift more with low bar.

First you need to get into the correct position. To do this, step in under the middle of the barbell, which should be sitting on the squat rack just below shoulder height. Now position the bar across your shoulders, resting either on your upper traps for a high bar squat or lower down on your rear delts for a low bar squat.

Next, reach up with both hands and grab onto the bar wherever feels comfortable – but no wider than elbows at 90 degrees.

Now that you are in position, straighten your legs to take the bar off the rack and take a small step or two backwards. Your legs should be about shoulder width apart, or perhaps even a little wider – whatever is comfortable. Your feet should be parallel or, if you want, with your toes turned out ever so slightly – again, whatever is most comfortable.

Take a deep breath and don’t let it go until you have completed the full rep.

Now, while keeping your head straight and your chest up, bend your knees and push your butt backwards, before squatting down as low as you can go. Do not come up onto your toes, keep your weight through your heels. Even with a relatively low weight across your shoulders, you will already start to feel how your back, chest, shoulder and arm muscles need to work in order for you to maintain an upright position in the upper body.

Your knees should not track too far out over your toes and should track in line with your feet. That is, they should not drop inwards towards each other and they should not splay out to the side.

The movement is like sitting down on a chair.

When pushing up out of the movement you can use your arms to push the bar upwards at the same time as you are pushing with your legs. Remember, push through your heels and keep your abdominals engaged, your head straight, your chest up and the knees tracking properly in line with your toes. Basically, squeeze every muscle you’ve got with all you’ve got!

How much weight should I be using?

The amount of weight you use for weighted back squats will very much depend on your ability and your training age. Training age equates to the number of weight training years you have under your belt.

Weighted squats are tough, there is no doubt about it, and can be dangerous. So if you are new to the squat game we strongly recommend that you find a coach to help guide you and to help work out the most appropriate weight.

As a general guide though, you should start with just using the 20kg barbell. This will help you get a feel for the movement and to learn the proper technique. If 20Kg is too heavy, work more on bodyweight squats, slowly building up the amount of weight you hold on to.

After that, the sky is the limit. First aim would be to be able to squat 10 reps at 50% of your bodyweight. Most people could get to this level reasonably quickly if they are not there already.

Next target would be to complete 10 reps lifting your bodyweight. People who regularly work legs, as we all should, should get to a point where bodyweight is their regular everyday working weight for squats – meaning that they can quite easily do 3 sets of 10 with a 3 minute rest in between.

Next stop, twice bodyweight. Now we are getting into serious weight territory. Even a single rep at this weight is tough, and rather impressive. But you know you are starting to hit the big time, and you are ready for competition when you move beyond twice bodyweight.

Tips

Always, and we mean always, stretch and mobilise all the muscles you intend to work before you start. A foam roller, a Rumble Roller, stretch bands and even a tennis ball placed in just the right spot are all useful tools.

Body awareness plays a major role with squats and is something that is developed over time. So be patient and persistent and, if you are relatively new to the whole weighted squat thing, start with low weights, even just the barbell on its own is fine as a starting point.

Maintain good technique at all times even if this means that you need to lift less for now. Good technique will help keep you free from injury and will give you better results in the long run.

Try and get nice and low in that squat position. To do this, you may need to work on your flexibility through the hips, hamstrings and even your upper thoracic (upper back muscles).
Remember, depth in a squat is how strength is created.

Also, to help you know if you are getting as low as you should, place a low stool, ball or some other item behind you. When you touch it with your butt you know you have gone low enough! Don’t sit on it though, just touch and go. However, when you are working with very heavy weights, having something behind you can be distracting and off-putting. We recommend that when working with heavy weights you depend on your coach or training buddy to give you feedback about your depth as well as other aspects of your technique.

You or your training buddy should observe where the bar tracks during the full movement. The bar needs to stay within the length of your foot. In other words your body should lower and raise nice and straight like an elevator. The bar should not track backwards behind your heels or, most commonly, forwards beyond your toes. Tracking forward beyond the toes indicates weakness in the lower back (your ‘lumbar erectors’) and needs to be addressed immediately.

Remember your breathing. Take a deep breath and don’t let it go until you have completed the full rep. This helps keep your core engaged and helps generate stability and strength through the movement.

How can I mix it up a bit?

There are a few ways you can mix up the bodyweight squat. Check out these variations:

Change the tempo: Changing the time it takes you to squat down and/or stand up during the movement can really bring on the burn. For example, lower down for a four count and stand up for a further count of four. If you are really up for a challenge, try stopping and holding at the bottom or at the half way point of the movement. However, when it comes to pushing your maximum lift, just stick with a regular tempo – knowing that coming up will be tough and slow!

Change your stance: You can try this squat movement with your legs wider apart. If you do, you should not keep your feet parallel. Instead turn your toes out slightly and make sure that your knees still track in the same line as your feet. This is called a wide leg squat or a straddle stance squat.

Try front squats: Oh, the mighty front squat, what an amazing exercise. Instead of resting the bar across your shoulders, you hold the bar in front of the body up high against your front deltoid. While a front squat is a relative of the back squat, it is an exercise in its own right and deserves its very own post.

What could go wrong?

With any exercise, the heavier you lift the higher the chance that something could go wrong. Squats are no exception! The slightest shift in posture, the slightest loss of focus, the momentary relaxing of a muscle can all result in a failed rep at best, and injury at worst. And the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller the more weight you lift.

With such heavy weights, a failed rep can be very dangerous. If you are new to squats or plan on pushing your limits, be sure to use a squat cage with safety rails and have someone with you to help if you run into trouble. Spotting someone doing heavy squats is a tricky business though and requires proper technique in itself, so be sure that your spotter knows what he or she is doing before you let him or her assist you with this movement.

As said above, weighted squats work the whole body. As such it is inevitable that you will experience some soreness through the entire range of your back muscles. However, to keep that back safe, keep the chest up, concentrate on moving your butt backwards and maintain the arch in your back for the full movement – both down and up.

Your adductors or groin muscles will also play a major part. If they are too tight your knees will drop in and you will risk your knees, maybe not right now but later.

At the end of the day, just focus on keeping the full movement, both up and down, nice and controlled.

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